In recent months the country seems to have suddenly come alive with resistance to the neo-liberal shock therapy that is being imposed by the coalition government. In the past my generation saw massive public opposition to the war in Iraq swept aside by an arrogant prime minister, convinced by his own lies that he had no obligations to the will of the people whom he supposedly represented, and popular dissent seemed to wither away as a result. Now though, we once again face an ultra-right wing government bent on a campaign of ideological scorched earth not seen since the dark days of Thatcher.
One of the new flowerings of dissent has come in the shape of the UK Uncut movement, although “movement” seems like too strong a word for something that is little more than an online message. The message goes like this – make the greedy corporations who (legally) evade their tax liabilities in the UK pay a fair share of tax, and in so doing, put the missing money into the government’s coffers that would pay for nearly everything that is being cut back. Watching from behind the safety of my laptop screen, it was frustrating to see the protests explode across the country while nothing seemed to be happening in Cardiff.
On Saturday 18th December that changed, with a demonstration outside Topshop, part of the Arcadia Group. This is run by Philip Green, but it is “owned” by his wife who doesn’t live in the UK, and who therefore didn’t pay any tax on the £1.2bn dividend that her husband paid her in 2005 – depriving the UK of approximately £300m in lost tax revenue. A message went up on the UK Uncut website to say that there would be an action on Saturday 18th December. Despite the atrocious snowy conditions, a small group gathered and the numbers eventually swelled to about 25. Five of us arrived early, and finding only a few people standing around outside, decided to go for a wander around the shop itself, trailed by several members of the specially hired-in security staff. After leaving the shop we joined the demo, chanted a bit, marvelled at our mate’s lovely banner, watched the three police officers suspiciously, and eventually headed off home. In comparison with other UK Uncut protests across the country, where people have occupied shops, superglued themselves to doors, climbed roofs, and slept in on bank floors, this would definitely rank as one of the less bolshy.
Is this a problem? It is and it isn’t. This was the first straight-up “UK Uncut” demonstration in Cardiff, and as such, it reflected the strengths and weaknesses of this movement. It was a demonstration that nearly existed more online than it did on Queen Street, and certainly the cost to Topshop in extra security was out of all proportion to the nature of the demonstration (so the online threat of disruption cost the company more money than the actual protest). It is stimulating to someone of my generation, used to having to laboriously flyer and poster a demo for weeks in advance, to see how people can organise with a mere click of a mouse button. In fact it has been something of a revelation to me to hear older activists recognise the importance that social media have had in determining the narrative of the recent protests, for example, the way that police brutality has been in the spotlight as never before, and within an ever-shortening period of time. So social media got us together in front of Topshop, and social media carried the message of our presence there far and wide – well, to all 128 of my Twitter followers, anyway.
What, though, could be improved? Well, as is already clear, this is not a single-issue protest. The question of Britain’s missing tax millions touches on every other question of the imposed cutbacks. So these actions could serve, perhaps ought to serve, as a springboard to greater resistance to Cameron and Clegg’s neo-liberal shock therapy. Already, encouragingly, within a small demonstration of 25, there were several different strands of Cardiff society present – students, working people, trade union organisers, anarchists, and socialists. But are the bonds that bring this group together strong enough to be able to increase the political price that our action can exact?
Judging by other demonstrations we could have made a bigger fuss, caught more public attention, garnered more media coverage, and increased the numbers interested in joining the next demonstration. Concrete improvements would have been to call for the demonstration to meet, incognito, inside the shop and on a given signal produce banners, placards, and megaphones. And shut it down. Or take the protest straight away to Vodafone or any of the other outlets of the corporate tax-dodgers. And shut them down. Eventually cause them such a level of discomfort that it becomes politically expedient to pay their bills and contribute fairly to this society.
Without the trust and confidence in your fellow protestors that is offered by an affinity group, it is hard to know who is going to take the first step. But a traditional picket, politely following the instructions that a bored police sergeant dishes out, doesn’t seem like the best we can do. Building resistance is a chicken-and-egg practice. It’s not so important what comes first, as long as it is built upon and grows in strength and wisdom. It is always a learning process, but what is important is to clarify the issues at stake – a class war has been declared on us, and we must learn to fight back and take the struggle to the heart of the empires of the robber barons.
History teaches us that we squandered the opportunity to save countless Iraqi lives by not having the courage to up the political ante in the face of Blair’s determination to go to war. This time round, we must not shrink from upping the political ante - anything else risks condemning us to historical oblivion. So the next time there is a UK Uncut action in Cardiff, why don’t we see if we can make life just a bit more uncomfortable for the rich and powerful, their political lackeys, and their allies the bankers, who are collectively looking to destroy our way of life while they wring every last penny of profit out of us in the meantime?